It’s not every day that you see representatives from the bipartisan majority coalition and the Republican minority coalition work together, but that’s the case when it comes to proposed regulations that would radically rework Alaska’s skilled labor workforce.
In a letter headlined by Reps. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, and Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, several legislators asked the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to abandon proposed “anti-apprenticeship” regulations that would greatly increase the number of trainees working under journeyman electricians, plumbers and pipefitters while opening the door to tradesmen from Outside.
The proposed regulation changes were published on Dec. 10, 2019 and the public comment period closed today. The proposed changes would introduce a trainee program as an alternative to an apprenticeship program that would allow up to 10 trainees to work on a job site for every certified journeyman (though it’d be 2:1 for plumbers and electricians).
Trainees would still need to be enrolled in state or federally sponsored training programs, but the pathway to a journeyman status would require 12,000 hours of experience as opposed to the 8,000 required by apprenticeship programs. Current rules require a 1:1 ratio of apprentices and journeymen, which the group of legislators say has made Alaska’s workforce significantly safer.
“These regulations would significantly expand the risk of on-the-job deaths and serious injuries while undermining the primary workforce development system for the industry,” the group of legislators argue, later adding, “For occupations where a single error can result in death—not just for individual workers but others on a job site—these changes present a clear and present danger to the life and safety of Alaska workers, and must be discarded.”
In a question and answer document published by the department, the administration addresses safety concerns by writing “The safety of students in a construction environment would be the responsibility of educational program.”
The document notes that “The department did not conduct studies” when preparing the proposed “student trainee” program. It also dismisses several questions about potential deaths due to the changes as “rhetorical.”
The proposed regulations would also make it easier for electricians and pipefitters from Outside to work in Alaska by basing licensing on hours worked instead of completion of the apprentice program. Such a move would particularly undermine organized labor and other trades groups in Alaska, the group argues.
“We only have a high-quality apprenticeship system for these occupations because it is funded by industry and employees, with professional instructors, classrooms and training facilities,” the letter argues. “Eliminating apprenticeship requirements and changing journeyworker-to-trainee ratios would allow substandard firms to consistently underbid firms that invest in adequate training.”
The letter also is critical of the impact the regulations would have on programs that are specifically aimed at military veterans that help transition veterans into the trades.
“Alaska’s government should support transitioning service members, not undermine veterans’ career opportunities,” Fields said in a prepared statement.
Merrick, who had the backing of labor during her 2018 election, said in a prepared statement that the apprenticeship program has been a bright spot in Alaska’s workforce.
“Alaska’s private sector construction contractors have invested in apprenticeship training for generations,” she said. “We should support industry-funded training with a stable, predictable, and effective regulatory climate.”
The signers of the letter include Reps. Fields, Merrick, Gabrielle LeDoux, Laddie Shaw, Matt Claman, Harriet Drummond, Sara Hannan, Grier Hopkins, Andy Josephson, Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, LeDoux, Dan Ortiz, Ivy Spohnholz, Andi Story and Chris Tuck. Democratic Sens. Tom Begich, Elvi Gray-Jackson, and Scott Kawasaki also signed on.